Hellenic Museum called 'newest thing in ancient history'
You don't have to be Greek or Greek-American to appreciate the National Hellenic Museum. Opened in Chicago's Greektown area in late 2011, it's jammed with reminders of ancient Greece's world contributions.
"Western Civilization is based on the fundamentals that Greece came up with," says Toula Georgakopoulos, the museum's external affairs director But until now, there had been no other museum that "tells the story all the way through," chronicling Greek history and culture and its impact on the world from ancient days through modern times.
"It is the newest thing in ancient history," executive director Stephanie A. Vlahakis says of the museum, where a timeline exhibit traces developments spanning 5,000 years. Among the highlights: Classical Greece, focused on democracy, architecture and sciences; Greece through various other empires, such as the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman; Modern Greece, and the Greek-American experience.
One thing visitors see at once is a ceiling-high replica of the Trojan horse, especially popular with youngsters because they can climb into its body. Another display depicts Greektown as it was a century ago, when Jane Addams offered social services at the nearby Hull House settlement.
The museum also features special exhibits such as "Gods, Myths and Mortals," scheduled to run through Sept. 2, 2012. Focused on ancient Greece, it takes visitors on an interactive journey where they meet Greek gods, experience ancient life, and study two epic poems -- "The Illiad" and "The Odyssey."
Planned for decades
The museum's new, 40,000-square-foot building at 333 S. Halsted St. has been planned for more than two decades. Previously, the museum occupied temporary homes in three rental spaces, the last on the fourth floor of the nearby Greek Islands restaurant. Ground was broken at the permanent site in November 2009.
"We have done something here in Chicago that hasn't been done by Greek-Americans anywhere else in the country," says Frank S. Kamberos, a museum trustee who co-founded Treasure Island Foods and chairs the Greek Star newspaper.
"People had been talking for many years about building a museum," Kamberos says. Gradually, museum supporters collected memorabilia for the project - 17,000-plus items in all, including clothing worn by the first Greek immigrants to Chicago and pottery crafted thousands of years ago.
By 2000, enough money had been donated to buy the land, former site of a hardware store. The museum is funded entirely through endowments and gifts, Georgakopoulos notes. "We have very generous donors," she says. Eight donors, for example, each gave $1 million toward the $15 million building.
Kamberos, John Marks and Andrew Athens – a group of friends – were among those who helped get the museum going, Georgakopoulos says. Kamberos and Marks remain on the museum board; Athens is a lifetime trustee. Large numbers of community members also helped, Kamberos says. "There were a lot more people than just the three of us involved."
The museum evolved from the trio's discussions about how to pass on their heritage to their children and grandchildren, says Marks, the museum's former president and founder and chairman of Mark IV Realty. "It speaks to the generations to come."
"It was more faith than anything else" that developed the museum, says Aristotle P. Halikias, museum president and chairman of the board of trustees as well as chairman of the board at Republic Bank and president of Inter-Continental Real Estate.
Georgia Mitchell agrees. "I have been on the board for 16 years," says the founder and director of the Hellenic Choral Society. "To bring it to this point is unbelievable."
In addition to exhibits, the museum includes an educational center for children and adults. It also is expected to be used for lectures, musical performances and wedding receptions, Georgakopoulos says. It boasts a "green" roof, with space between the plants to seat 170 people for dinner on a warm night.
Resources for research
Kamberos is particularly proud of the museum's oral history center, which he helped fund. An oral history project including snippets of more than 200 interviews will be available at a touch, with full interviews available in listening stations. Every interview is translated and transcribed, then cross-indexed by person and village. Museum staffers are trying to reach everyone who has a story to tell; they'll even visit people's homes to conduct interviews, Georgakopoulos says.
Archives are an important part of the museum, full of donations from families, churches, institutions and organizations. A research library and resource center includes more than 10,000 items in Greek and English, such as books, periodicals, newspapers and records pertaining to Greece. "It is probably going to be the biggest in the United States," Georgakopoulos adds.
The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Tuesday evenings it stays open until 8 p.m.) Saturday and Sunday hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, $7 for children 3-12 (children younger than 3 are admitted free) For more, see www.nationalhellenicmuseum.org or phone 312-655-1234.